May 26th, 2010
09:16 AM ET

The Dalai Lama is wrong

Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

I am a big fan of the Dalai Lama. I love his trademark smile and I hate the fact that I missed his talks this week in New York City. But I cannot say either "Amen" or "Om" to the shopworn clichés that he trots out in the New York Times in “Many Faiths, One Truth.”

Recalling the Apostle Paul—“When I was a child, I spoke like a child”—the Dalai Lama begins by copping to youthful naivete. “When I was a boy in Tibet, I felt that my own Buddhist religion must be the best,” he writes, “and that other faiths were somehow inferior.” However, just as Paul, upon becoming a man, “put away childish things,” the Dalai Lama now sees his youthful exclusivism as both naïve and dangerous. There is “one truth” behind the “many faiths,” and that core truth, he argues, is compassion.

Like the Dalai Lama, who writes of how he was influenced by Thomas Merton, I believe we can learn greatly from other religions. I too hope for tolerance and harmony in our interreligious interactions. I am convinced, however, that true tolerance and lasting harmony must be built on reality, not fantasy. Religious exclusivism is dangerous and naïve. But so too is pretend pluralism. The cause of religious harmony is not advanced in the least by the shibboleth that all religions are different paths up the same mountain.

If you ask religious universalists what lies at the top of the mountain, the answers they will give you are not one but many. Gandhi and philosopher of religion Huston Smith say that at the top there is the same universal God. But when others describe this religious mountaintop they invariably give voice to their own particular beliefs and biases.

Followers of the Dalai Lama revere him as a reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. So it should not be surprising that he sees compassion at the heart of all religions. But this is a parochial perspective, not a universal one. And like any form of pretend pluralism it threatens to blind us both to the particular dangers of individual religious traditions and to their unique beauties.

To be sure, all religions preach compassion. But it is false to claim that compassion is the reason for being of the great religions. Jesus did not die on a cross in order to teach us to help old ladies across the street. The Jewish milieu in which he was raised already knew that. And as the Dalai Lama points out, so did the rest of the world’s religions. Jesus came, according to most Christian thinkers, to stamp out sin and pave the path to salvation. Similarly, the Buddha did not sit down under a Bo tree in India in order to teach us not to kill our brothers. The Hindu milieu in which he was raised already knew that too. He came, according to most Buddhist thinkers, to stamp out suffering and pave the path to nirvana.

As I argue in my new book, "God is Not One:  The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter," religion is an immensely powerful force both personally and politically. So if we want to understand the world we must understand the world's religions. This includes reckoning with both similarities and differences, and with the capacity of each of the great religions to do both good and evil.

I know that when it comes to the Dalai Lama we are all supposed to bow and scrape. So I am happy to applaud his project to find “common ground” across the world’s religions. But I also know that the Buddha said to worship no man. And I cannot agree with the Dalai Lama’s claim that “the essential message of all religions is very much the same.”

The Dalai Lama was doubtless naïve when, as a boy, and before learning about other religions, he arrived at the conclusion that only his religion was true. But it is no advance out of innocence to make the equally fantastic claim that all the religions are at heart vehicles for compassion. If we are to build a world of interreligious harmony, or even a world of interreligious détente, it will have to be constructed on a foundation of adult experience rather than youthful naivete.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Buddhism • Christianity • Faith • Leaders • Opinion

soundoff (633 Responses)
  1. Andrew

    This guy is a religion scholar? In order to feel compassion for all living things one must go through an awakening process. It's not about helping old ladies across the street. It's about taking a deep spiritual journey within yourself, which has nothing to do with religion. Religion is man made where as enlightenment already exists; we just have to find it inside us. Practicing mindfulness is the key.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:55 pm |
  2. IaCheNeHe

    you make a good point, but missing a little info on how the universe supports us and does manifest into reality our true needs but only when we use one of the universal laws, the law of allowance. no god is needed. Jesus tried to tell us this when he said, "theses things you can do and more" read the Handbook for the New Paradigm if you want more. It's free to download.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:53 pm |
  3. StrangeCat

    Sounds like the Dalai Lama is once again wiser then most. He is deffinitly wiser then Stephen Prothero. First of all religions are sort of joke. Put together over time to lead people or is that control people?(politics/religion?) The Bible? The bible is a censored book of the real bible that was made up of many books. Pretty sure that the whole word interprets it wrong too. There is only one religion Stephen and that is a spirtual belief. Everything else is just hog-wash manipulated through the ages. The Dalai Lama is wise.
    Study your history. GO read Jorden Maxwell or something.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:52 pm |
  4. trainwreck

    with all due respect, i believe the dalai lama was correct. the major religions are in many ways different paths up the same mountain, it was only in learning of zen that i was able to unlock christianitys mysteries...they complement

    May 26, 2010 at 10:51 pm |
  5. DeAguaDulce

    You are completely wrong; their gods are not imaginary, according to Christianity. Paul taught that behind every idol is a demon posing as a god and demanding worship. They wanted God's place, that is why they rebelled against Him. It shouldn't surprise you, in that light, that Christians reject them.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:51 pm |
  6. IraM

    Until man rids himself of all these fantasies and all religious mumbo jumbo we will continue to kill each other in the name of peace, compassion, and love. The Dalai Lama comes as close as anyone I ever listen too. At least Buddist don't kill others to save them.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:50 pm |
  7. Pockets

    Read the book Religion Spoils Everything, by Christopher Hitchens for some "enlightment". Religion overall seems to be the Cult of the Personality. I think eventually science and reasoning will prevail and religion will fade away. It is already if you look at how many people do not attend a church. There is no god so enjoy your life.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:48 pm |
    • DeAguaDulce

      Or, just as the Bible predicted, in the Last Days there will be a great Apostacy, a falling away of people from faith, who become impudent and insolent toward God.

      May 26, 2010 at 10:55 pm |
    • IaCheNeHe

      you'd think christians would be down with the "love thing" and let go of the "end-timer mentality". It's all written and its full of gloom and doom. How boring is the bible, I've read it fully 3 times, done years of studies on it and still its patchwork to make men confused and have to rely on your imagination ..so you imagine a god. sad really.

      May 26, 2010 at 11:08 pm |
    • Erica

      Hee hee. This reminds me of South Park's Go God Go (& Go God Go XII) episodes. "Hail Science!!" That's the one where the world realized the folly in religion but instead a bunch of science-focused sects were waging war about something else anyway. And the one with robo-otters!

      May 27, 2010 at 5:54 am |
  8. Rubio

    This is a friendly reminder that you are writing to an audience that is far more experienced and far more spiritual than you realize. Would you be so kind as to honor that adult reality and consider topics that foster an opening of mind and heart without subversive aggressions, self-promotion, and arguments that are so complex you can’t possibly do them justice in an blog you strung together on a cnn.com deadline? Please remember you are in a position of power and responsibility. Your little blog can influence the world. Will you bring us light, or will you only bring us more shadows?

    May 26, 2010 at 10:47 pm |
    • brad

      The self promotion in this article was completely shameless.

      May 27, 2010 at 6:02 am |
  9. Surendra P. Singh

    We are paying too much attention to this misguided Stephen Prothero. Let us have compassion for this lost soul.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:43 pm |
  10. Sara

    This is a very self-serving article which horribly mis-interprets His Holiness' message. Compassion is the only way to peace and was the very message that Jesus taught.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:42 pm |
  11. GB

    Perhaps one day Mr Prothero will also see beyond his youthful exclusivism.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:42 pm |
  12. Tony

    Compassion, means to "suffer with" another. If you truly are willing to suffer with/understand another will you not
    be an agent of love in a world which is so divided by the failure of so many to even try and understand the other.
    I.e. The other that is present in the form of your fellow traveler from whatever culture or religion he/she comes from.
    At the core of every human and every religion is mystery and in essence that means that we can't even truly understand
    ourselves never mind the depths of the mysteries in our universe. Let hope we can truly learn to live with the tolerance
    to "live and let live" and so promote love, justice compassion and peace on our planet.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:40 pm |
  13. Bin

    The world is being taken for a ride by this fine actor. I guess he is due for an oscar.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:39 pm |
  14. publius enigma

    The theme of christianity is forgiveness. I applaud attempts to get religions to get along, but the implied attempt to meld them all into one super-religion is sick.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:39 pm |
    • tom

      Sorry I din't read your second sentance, but trust me I don't blame you or anyone for a event that happened over 2000 years ago, really, no, not.

      May 27, 2010 at 7:36 am |
    • Sevres Blue

      I remember distinctly the day in sixth grade our nun announced that, Vatican II Council had passed down to us that the Jews did not kill Jesus. We were not to 'hate' the Jews. We sat in stunned silence. A few hands went up. The question we all had was "Who are we supposed to hate?" Looking back on that now, from another place, I am horrified.
      Many, many Catholics, and other Christians, too, are now educated, and no longer believe in the 'need' to hate. Still, all the conservative parts of all religions do seem to 'hate' and have rules, that if you don't follow, you can't meet God at the end of your life.

      My religion nun in high school would answer this way "Is it a man-made rule or a God-made rule?" I've used that as a guide throughout my life, and been happy. Thinking people have to live this way. I do believe in God, but I know nothing about him or her or it, except how I feel when I'm in communion with him. And what I feel is love. And the urge to act in my life with love towards others. Man, I don't always do it, but I do try, and if I fail I try to make it up or apologize.

      May 27, 2010 at 7:56 am |
    • Mike

      Atheism is not a religion.

      May 27, 2010 at 9:33 am |
    • Julie

      I'm a Christian, and I have never had any animosity towards the Jewish people. Where do you get that?

      May 27, 2010 at 12:41 pm |
  15. Bryan Beus

    We cannot "argue" God away, which is what you seem to do here.

    If there is a God–one God–then we cannot "break him into eight major religions" in order to appease our desire to see the so-called "reality" anymore than we can break the sun into eight major suns in order to satisfy a flawed Astrophysics 101 exam. If he is there, it is up to us to continually seek him until we find him.

    If, there is not One God, but–as you say–"eight major religions" i.e. Gods, then I still choose the same God that the Dalai Lama has chosen: "compassion"–though we could also use the name "love."

    May 26, 2010 at 10:39 pm |
    • Vikosus

      I don't think there is truely a difference between one or many gods... all are facets of the same idea. Look at Hinduism... you may have many gods, Vishnue, Ganesha..etc – they are all facets of Brahmin... The one indescribable truth is that regardless of one or many, there has to be something greater... We are all God(s)('s) children... There is one truth and that is that there is always something greater.

      May 27, 2010 at 6:47 am |
  16. Jesus

    You are all wrong . . . The truth is we're all simply a breed of evolved monkey doomed to destroy ourselves. The truth will set you free.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:36 pm |
  17. makromikro

    As every genuinely good person knows, religion is neither necessary nor sufficient to make a person good.
    Discussing religious "truths" is like discussing, well, the s//e//ks of the angels...
    Or arguing that "my imaginary friend is mightier than yours"...

    May 26, 2010 at 10:36 pm |
  18. Bob Angel

    The dalai lama is a man, ghandi was a man, buhda was a man, mohammed was a man, jesus was a man, while they were all flawed as humans are, they were also great thinkers and intelectuals with controversial beliefs way ahead of their times and some delusional ones at that at times, it is MAN who has turned all of them into "dieties". mankind is always looking for justification as to why we are here instead of putting all of the efforts of us vs. them, we are the only true one, etc.. into figuring out how to make life better for all. Even if all of mankind was the same color, same religion etc.. we would find somthing to discrimainte against, hair color, eye color, height, weight, size of feet. We are still way to immature and petty.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:36 pm |
  19. Bill

    I am willing to bet that Jesus is quite happy with the Dalai Lama as they teach the same thing. IMO hi Holiness is MUCH closer the the will of God than the pope or any other mainstream western religion. There is a BIG difference between faith and religion.

    May 26, 2010 at 10:35 pm |
  20. Nirakar

    I am not a big fan of the Dalai Lama, but what this professor is trying to do is bring up a controversial subject and try to increase the sale of his "new book". There was no reason to bring up his "book" in the article if that was not his intention. Professor, you have every right to disagree the Dalai Lama or anybody in that matter, but you do not have to try to sale your book while doing that. Did this professor pay CNN to publish this article? What's wrong with CNN? Don't they read the article before they publish it?

    May 26, 2010 at 10:34 pm |
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